Gardens have been the source of inspiration for artists down the centuries, but for the Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, they were the lifeblood of his works.
Monet cultivated gardens for much of his life, and drew creative inspiration from flowers and horticulture in his art.
This summer is a great time to visit his most famous garden at Giverny, 50 miles north-west of Paris. I was tempted to revisit these magnificent gardens following a recent trip to the Painting the Modern Garden: From Monet to Matisse exhibition at London’s Royal Academy.
The Royal Academy show is a visual delight with a remarkable selection of works by Monet, including the monumental Agapanthus Triptych, a trio of his Giverny flower paintings reunited specially for the exhibition.
It took me back to the place where Monet drew his inspiration – the house and gardens at Giverny – where he moved in 1883 and lived until his death in 1926 at the ripe old age of 86.
Monet is arguably the most important painter of gardens in the history of art. He once said he owed his painting “to flowers”. They are a recurring motif in many of his works.
During the 1870s, Monet painted at his suburban garden in Argenteuil and this interest in horticulture evolved throughout his life, reaching its peak at Giverny.
Impressionist artists started the trend in painting out-of-doors or plein-air, as they called it. Gardens became an extension of their studios, a hothouse for artistic creation.
The modern garden proved to be the perfect subject for the Impressionists in the late 19th century. Gardens were enjoying their new status as leisure spaces for the bourgeoisie in the mid-late 1800s, fuelled by the growth in leisure time. The aesthetic appreciation of gardens was also booming.
The horticultural movement drove interest in gardening as a leisure hobby and the modern concept of gardening for pleasure started to take root.
There was a boom in horticultural societies, plant nurseries and gardening magazines. Exotic plants were imported from abroad whilst advances in botany meant that new, colourful hybrids could be produced.
For Monet and his fellow artists, gardens gave them the freedom to break new ground and explore the changing world around them. In an age of urban growth and industrialisation, gardens were treasured for their connection to nature. They became places of retreat from the bustle of city life – havens of tranquility and beauty.
At Giverny, Monet created some of his most famous and groundbreaking works inspired by nature, including his series of water lily paintings. Artistic friends would visit the gardens including Vuillard and Bonnard, who drew inspiration from what they saw there.
Monet exchanged letters with the artist Gustave Caillebotte, also an avid gardener, about horticulture techniques, greenhouses and new hybrid plant varieties. Art and gardening had never been more closely connected.
Monet to Caillebotte: “My dear friend, don’t forget to come Monday as agreed, all my irises will be in bloom, later some will be over. This is the name of the Japanese plant which I obtained from Belgium: Crythrochaete. Be sure to talk to Monsieur Godefroy about it and to give me some information about its cultivation.” – Monet letter.
Giverny’s glorious gardens
When Monet purchased Giverny in 1890, he started landscaping the gardens, redesigning them, laying out pathways and planting flowers designed to bloom throughout the year to maximise seasonal colours.
He also built a heated greenhouse, appointed a team of six gardeners to look after the trees and plants, and reinvigorated the old fruit and vegetable garden.
Monet’s biggest innovation was to create a large lily pond at Giverny, inspired by the floral displays which he’d seen at the 1889 Paris Universal exhibition.
To create the lily pond, Monet diverted water from a nearby stream and filled it with the new hybrid species of colourful water lilies. He added a Japanese-inspired bridge to enable visitors to see the water lilies at close range.
In 1899 he painted a set of 12 paintings of the bridge and the water lilies in the pond. After completing this series, Monet embarked on a remarkable artistic adventure, painting increasingly abstract visions of the water lilies floating on the surface of the water.
The garden was an ‘outside studio’ for Monet and the water lilies became the main motif in his later paintings.
Several of Monet’s water lily paintings can be seen at the current Royal Academy London exhibition. I was struck not just by their beauty but how they illustrate Monet’s fascination with light and shifting textures and hues in nature.
During the 1910s and 1920s, Monet focused almost exclusively on painting the water lily pond at Giverny. As I walked around the gardens, I started to understand why Monet became obsessed with painting this picturesque and ever-changing landscape. It is something quite special.
“It took me some time to understand my water lilies… I cultivated them with no thought of painting them… One does not fully appreciate a landscape in one day… And then, suddenly, I had a revelation of the magic of my pond. I took my palette. From this moment, I have had almost no other model” – Monet letter.
Today at Giverny
Today, there are plenty of reasons to visit Giverny – the gardens are beautiful in their own right but they have a special resonance and an enormous artistic heritage. After all, this is the very place which inspired Monet to paint his most famous works – the iconic water lilies.
There are two parts of Monet’s garden – a flower garden called Clos Normand in front of the house and the Japanese inspired water garden on the opposite side of the road.
The two parts of Monet’s garden contrast and complement one another. Monet was very proud of his water garden and spent hours contemplating it. He became a full-time gardener, helping with its maintenance to ensure that the perfect beauty of Giverny was kept.
It is thought that Monet created around 250 oil paintings based on the water lilies. It’s fascinating and humbling to stand on the very spot where the great artist made these works.
Monet described his water lilies as “producing the effect of an endless whole, of a watery surface with no horizon and no shore”.
Standing looking at the paintings, distance and perspective are abolished. An endless expanse of water occupies our field of vision. The same effect comes into play if you stand silently staring at the lily pond at Giverny for any length of time.
Today, the only problem at Giverny is a modern one – the impact of mass tourism, coach parties and crowds.
The sound of cameras clicking and excited visitors taking selfies and videos is very distracting. Then, there’s the thunderous roar of lorries and rail traffic that impinge on the garden’s quiet ambience . It’s not exactly a solitude experience.
But like The Louvre and the Vatican, this is a common problem at iconic cultural attractions. In a weird way, I enjoyed the fact that Giverny has become the public’s open air gallery too.
You can always take refuge in the modest house in which the artist and his family lived which contains Monet’s studio-sitting room and his collection of Japanese prints.
On the first floor you’ll find Monet’s private apartments including his bedroom, his second wife Alice’s bedroom, a tiny sewing room, and Blanche Hoschedé-Monet’s bedroom which was opened to the public for the first time in 2014.
Don’t miss Monet’s beautiful Japanese prints including stunning works by Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige. Japanese art and design was a huge influence on Monet. The inspiration he drew from the Japanese art of gardens is clearly visible at Giverny.
In June 2007, a Monet’s water lily painting sold for an astonishing £18.5 million at Sotheby’s in London. But at Giverny, anyone can see the inspiration for the paintings, even if we can’t afford to have an original hanging on the living room wall.
Simply sit on a bench and soak up the authentic experience.
Tammy’s Guide – Monet’s Garden at Giverny
Giverny is in north-west France, about 50 miles from Paris. The Claude Monet Foundation is open daily from 25 March to 1 November 2016 from 9.30 am. till 6 pm (no dogs allowed). Admission fee. Pick the correct season if you want to see the water-lilies in bloom. Choose quieter times to avoid coach parties.
The Giverny gardens comprise two parts – the Clos Normand flowerbeds and the Water Garden, with oriental vegetation, weeping willows, Japanese bridge and water lily pond.
Painting the Modern Garden: From Monet to Matisse is at London’s Royal Academy from 30 January until 20 April, 2016. Ticket prices are £17.60. The nearest Tube stations are Green Park and Piccadilly.
The exhibition uses Monet’s garden paintings as a starting point. It examines the role gardens have played in the evolution of art from the early 1860s through to the 1920s.
Monet was not alone in his love of gardens and the horticultural world. The exhibition also includes masterpieces by Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet, Singer Sargent, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Klimt and Klee.
This excellent show traces the emergence of the modern garden through paintings by some of the most important Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and avant-garde artists of the early 20th century. Many were heavily influenced by Monet’s garden paintings.
But two works stand out from the crowd. Renoir’s painting of Monet in his garden at Argenteuil takes us back to the beginning of the painter’s obsession with horticulture and the great outdoors.
The final room is the most spectacular in the show and worth the price of admission on its own. The Royal Academy has managed to reunite three works from Monet’s water-lilies triptych in a 360 degree walk-around experience.
Silence fell on everyone walking around this stunning space – as if they had been transported back to Giverny with the artist himself. What better tribute is there to Mr Monet?